By MIKE McGEE and ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
“Leadership is found in the action to defeat that, which would defeat you… You are made by the struggles you choose.” – C.T. Vivian
With what seemed to be a one-two punch of fate during a time of nationwide protests against police brutality, as well as an upcoming presidential election, the country lost two major leaders from the Civil Rights Era on one July 17 – Minister Cordy Tindell Vivian and U.S. Representative John Lewis.
The two iconic trailblazers worked together several times to fight for justice and equality across the nation. Lewis is the more recognized of the pair. Yet, Vivian has also made significant strides in the battle for the civil rights. Known for his work alongside Martin Luther King Jr., he served as King’s lieutenant and advisor. He also provided civil rights counsel for five American presidents as well as several young civil rights activists.
King once called him “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
Born was born July 30, 1924, in Boonville, Missouri, and moved to Macomb, Illinois, as a small child. He graduated high school in 1942 and continued his education at Western Illinois University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in education, according to the C.T. and Octavia Vivian Museum and Archives.
The museum documented that Vivian’s first job as an educator was as a recreation director for Carver Community Center in Peoria. Having witnessed racism and an unequal justice system since he was young, Vivian began instructing non-violent demonstrations and leading sit-ins in 1947. The group was successful in integrating a local cafeteria.
In 1959, he began his studies at the American Baptist Theological Seminary where he met James Lawson, a minister who taught non-violence using Mahatma Gandhi’s and adopted his strategies into this teaching. A year later, he traveled to Nashville City Hall in Tennessee with Diane Nash and a group of activists to fight against racial injustice, according to his bio. Upon arrivals, he confronted the city’s mayor about racism in the city. In response, the mayor agreed, “racial discrimination was morally wrong.”
“He provided training so we could protect ourselves, training before you went to a protest at that time…” Dr. Charles Steele Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference penned as he recalled when he first met the minister in Tuscaloosa in 1964.
In 1961, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began participating in Freedom Rides and helping Black Americans register to vote. During a Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi – in which Vivian arrived to replace some of those injured – the group was arrested upon their arrival. Two years later, he was named as the national director for the SCLC.
“Also, we were trying to integrate the court house, and C.T. Vivian was sent to the SCLC by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to work with a local pastor T.Y. Rogers, where Black citizens were also attempting to integrate the city parks, water fountains, and five and dime stores. He was a great leader. He was an icon,” Steele emphasized. “He was the world’s greatest storyteller, sharing the stories of his experiences and how he relied on his wisdom to survive through the turbulent 60s. Ultimately, that wisdom played a crucial role in bringing about freedom in America for Black and poor folks.
“He feared nothing.”
Vivian was featured in the film, Eyes On the Prize, when he led a group of Black activist in an attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, Feb. 15, 1965. The sheriff and other law enforcement met him at the door and refused him and the group entrance. Vivan spoke with empowerment, telling them that all citizens had a right to vote. His efforts were met with violence as the sheriff punched him in the face.
“We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in the street,” he told the sheriff.
They were not able to register that day, but he did not give up.
In 1979, he co-founded the National Anti-Klan Network, later broadened into the Center for Democratic Renewal, a multiracial organization that promoted diversity, inclusion and democracy. The group worked closely with religious and interfaith leaders and groups to fight against racism and white supremacy. In 1990, it added gender-based crimes to the Hate Crimes Statistical Reporting Act.
In 1985, Steele became the first African American to serve on the Tuscaloosa City Council and eventually the first African American elected as a state senator in Alabama. He credited Vivian for both wins, for the work he did for equality in the past and for the present support he was able to generate.
In 2008, he founded the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, to provide leadership skills for new grass-root civil rights groups.
The minister worked on promoting civil rights for decades. At 87, he was engaged at that time with repealing Alabama’s immigration law, an Associated Press article from Dec. 2011 noted. Vivian said Alabama’s tough immigration law was based on the same hostility as segregation laws 50 years ago.
“White America has never seen anybody as fully human except other White people,” Phillip Rawls reported Vivian stating. “We have made our laws around putting down the lowest level and giving a little more to the ones right above it.”
For his lifetime of courage and activism, Vivian received many honors. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President Barak Obama.
Documenting his journey, Vivan wrote Black Power and the American Myth, published in 1970; Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, published in 2015; Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, published in 2017; and Race Man: Selected Works, 1960-2015, published Feb. 11, 2020.
He founded several organizations, such as Seminary Without Walls and a prototype of Upward Bound. Also, he co-founded Coalition for United Community Action, A Black Center for Strategy and Community Development, and Black Action Strategies and Information Center known as B.A.S.I.C.
Two months ago, Vivian had a stroke and appeared to have recovered. Two months later, a spokesman reported that he died of natural causes. He was 95 years old.
“Without leaders like C.T. Vivian, there would be no Black Lives Matter, but no lives would matter,” Steele expressed recently as he remembered the leader in his passing. “His courage and leadership paved the way for us today.”